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Fargo's fading history

One of the most important historic discoveries uncovered in Fargo in recent years was found two stories above ground. Four years ago, when Newman Outdoor Advertising removed a billboard from the south side of 413 Broadway, a painted advertisement...

One of the most important historic discoveries uncovered in Fargo in recent years was found two stories above ground.

Four years ago, when Newman Outdoor Advertising removed a billboard from the south side of 413 Broadway, a painted advertisement for the Bison Hotel was unveiled.

Despite years of neglect, the painting was protected from the elements by the billboard.

Painted directly onto the bricks, the sign features the former business's logo and boasts "sensible hotel rates."

The sign is a reminder of both downtown Fargo's once vibrant business section and an art form fading from the nation's urban landscape. Before the age of lighted signs and highway billboards, advertisements were painted directly on an establishment's wall. As the sign industry evolved to incorporate metal, vinyl and neon, the paintings became fading writings on the walls.


But some people aren't ready to see the signs completely fade away.

"I think anyone in downtown Fargo with a sense of history and an interest in the buildings would want to preserve these," says Dawn Morgan.

Morgan, who owns The Spirit Room on Broadway and is a member of the Fargo-Moorhead Heritage Society, says the faded paintings are part of the city's history and could complement downtown's revival.

"We have a lot of visual discord in downtown," Morgan says.

"Some buildings look bombed out," Morgan says. "It would be delightful to have these treasures tucked away. I think it would contribute to the whole of downtown."

Jim Lindberg in the Denver office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation says cities like Butte Mont., and Pueblo, Colo., have implemented sign restoration in rehabilitating their downtowns.

"People are looking at ways to enliven and enforce the vibrancy of downtown areas," Lindberg says. "These areas have a distinct environment you won't find at the mall. You're trying to give people that sense of being in a special place."

But preservationists disagree on how best to maintain the painted ads. While some communities want to completely refurbish them, others opt to touch them up and still others leave them as is.


"Many people have found that repainting removes the sense of authenticity and history that makes these signs so intriguing," Lindberg says.

Many towns that have rallied around the signs

have organized walking tours to take in some of the painted artifacts.

The tours have fed off an increased interest in documenting the vestiges of Americana art.

Photographer William Stage popularized the term "ghost signs" when he published a collection of photos and essays by the same name in 1989.

Detroit photographer Greg Hodgson has spent the better part of the last 10 years documenting the urban paintings in his hometown. The resulting body of work comprises the exhibit "Ghost Ads," currently on display at the Detroit Historical Museum.

"There were more and more of these signs disappearing, so I really went out after them," Hodgson says. "I look at advertising as the art form of the last century."Hodgson's turn as an urban archaeologist delivered a history lesson about his own town.

"I had no clue Detroit was a big stove town at the turn of the century," he says. "I found out there were 100 cigar manufacturers here at the time."


Likewise, the signs in Fargo point to the town's former strength in agriculture.

A painting on the south side of the Rumlev Thresher Co. building at 300 NP Ave. advertises for Allis Chalmers. The building's location next to the railroad was an ideal spot for the farm implement manufacturer.

The proximity to the tracks was also desirable to the Pence Automobile Co. warehouse, located across the street at 301 N.P. Ave. Now the home to Richtman's Printing, signs on the north and west sides still bear the Pence name.

One person documenting Fargo's fading ads has been James Lileks, a columnist for the Minneapolis Star/Tribune and amateur historian.

On his Web site, www.lileks.com , the Fargo expatriate has posted a collection of postcards and photos documenting the growth of downtown. The site also features photos of Fargo's ghost ads.

"It's fun to see them around still," the writer says. "It's such an odd, faded reminder of the way things used to look.

"People think the past didn't have as much visual assault, but when you look at pictures now, it looks like (a scene from the sci-fi film) 'Blade Runner.' It was slathered with imagery. Who needed billboards when you have the side of a building?"

One of Lileks' favorite vestiges is still visible on the south side of the McCormick Building at 320 N. Fifth St. The building was previously home to Ed Phillip's liquor distribution.


What remains shows a smiling cowboy, with "a Cheshire cat-like smile," and a bottle of Sunnybrook whiskey.

Lileks says the imagery reflects a time before political correctness. He says if anyone painted a story-high advertisement for cigarettes or booze on the side of the building now there would be "howls of protest."

"Nobody thought twice about a cowboy, this imperialist machine crashing across the Plains," Lileks laughs.

Another favorite of the writer's is a Coca-Cola painting on the north side of BDS Books at 506 Broadway.

Phil Mooney, an archivist at Coca-Cola's main offices in Atlanta, says the company painted its first murals in Curtisville, Ga., in 1893 and continued through the 1950s before abandoning the advertising medium.

Coca-Cola targeted smaller towns for the wall paintings because larger communities had more competition for ad space. Mooney says the paintings were located either at main intersections or next to train lines to maximize viewing.

The Coca-Cola painting on the BDS building is adjacent to the Burlington Northern tracks.

Property owner Kary Aggie, of Aggie Investment in Fargo, says she has called Coca-Cola about refurbishing the sign, but isn't interested if Coke doesn't cough up the cash.


"I can't see us paying for someone else's advertising," Aggie says.

Mooney says the decision to refurbish paintings is left up to the local distributor, but that restorations have often been part of community revitalization programs.

Aggie's sentiment is echoed down the street by Larry Bosma, who owns the Hotel Bison and the Fargoan Hotel.

The recovered painting for the Hotel Bison faces two paintings on the north side of the Fargoan. On the Broadway end is a three-story green-on-white ad for Scherling Photography, while on the back end is a more weathered mural for the old Powers Coffee Shop with the slogan, "Just a cup of coffee to you but a reputation to us."

"I personally think it's unique," Bosma says. "It's part of our heritage. It would be nice idea to redo the signs, even if those businesses aren't around. It could become a civic project."

He adds that at one time the Powers family owned the Fargoan, the building that now houses Juano's and a number of other locations in downtown.

Bosma says he would pay for paint if a group offered the labor to redo the Powers and Bison signs, but since Scherling's is still around, he would like to see the company pay for restoration.

Mike Engh, who painted the Scherling mural in the early 1970s with his son, says he doesn't think the work needs to be restored.


"The one thing that saved it was being on the north side, saving it from the elements," says the retired Cook Sign Co. painter.

In the '50s and '60s, Engh painted signs on grain elevators and a number of wall murals, but innovations in signage pushed painting aside. Engh also says because more businesses now rent space than own property, permanent wall paintings are a thing of the past.

"There's not much history to it anymore," Engh says. "They're all fading."

If Patrick and Steve Scherling have it their way, the painting might not fade for much longer.

The brothers have discussed restoring the sign, if they could do so legally.

"I didn't see it as an advertisement at all," Patrick says. "I saw it more as a landmark."

The 84-year-old family business was located in that spot in the middle of the last century, after having been started by the brothers' grandfather Arvid in what is now the Spirit Room.

Steve says he would be willing to pay for the restoration and future upkeep.

"I think it would add a little flair," Bosma says. "Anything like that would attract attention and bring people downtown."

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533

For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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